Harnack – What is Christianity? (Part 1)


Note: I was not able to get my hands on a physical copy of this book, so I had to resort to my Kindle version; you will have to excuse my lack of direct citations.

Harnack’s lectures regarding the essence of Christianity are focused in his work: “What is Christianity?” In it he establishes the Christian religion as “something simple and sublime” and fundamentally rooted in two solely verifiable sources: the person of Jesus and the testament of the Gospel.

In all honesty, there weren’t many surprises for me in the first half of his lectures, but I wanted to note an item that I found compelling: The kingdom of God and its coming.

Harnack shows that while Jesus imported most of his eschatological message from the Jewish prophets (and surely no one should be surprised by this) he also set forth a revolutionary and distinct idea, that announcement that “it is in the midst of you.” The famous phrase, the kingdom of God is at hand, is the basis of Jesus’s eschatology. The tension, more so, between the incoming of the kingdom and the present world is ever real: “There can be no doubt about the fact that the idea of the two kingdoms, of God and of the devil, and their conflicts…” Regarding the tension, Harnack is not convinced that we are not tasked (nor capable) of resolving this tension. Instead, Harnack sees the incoming of the kingdom not as a social presence but something that takes hold of the soul of the individual: “True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals; it is God Himself in His power…” This individual incoming is of course at tension itself with many contemporary social theologies of the Kingdom.

What I find compelling about Harnack’s theology of the kingdom is his emphasis on the social expression of the individual life: “The Gospel is a social message, solemn and overpowering in its force; it is the proclamation of solidarity and brotherliness, in favor of the poor. But the message is bound up with the recognition of the infinite value of the human soul, and is contained in what Jesus said about the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ preferential option for the poor is the driving point of his Gospel, the good news for the poor. The individual, once caught up in the dynamic energy of the kingdom, and its transformation of the inner life, naturally moves toward a disposition toward the poor and oppressed.


9 Responses to “Harnack – What is Christianity? (Part 1)”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    You’ve touched upon a central tension in Harnack’s theology. On the one hand, he has a very individualistic reading of religion that takes place between the soul and God. On the other hand, he did emphasize that religious believers ought to be in solidarity with the poor which demands social action. Despite this preferential option for the poor, Harnack claims Jesus was no social reformer or revolutionary. I also suspect that this conviction leads to his weak reading of the cross. How does Harnack account for Jesus’ death by Roman execution? We don’t really get any such explanation because he cannot account for this political execution. Instead we get some sentimental Abelardian “suffering love” of the cross.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Question for you Wesley: what do you see as being the theological differences between emergent folks (e.g. McLaren) and Harnack?

  3. Wes Says:

    Agreed, I did find Harnack’s reading of Jesus as stuck between two-halves, so to speak. Especially paired with our christology and atonement readings, its hard to take seriously Harnack’s weak christology in light of Bohache, etc.

    Regarding your question on emergent theology, I do think, the more I am acquainted with liberal protestantism, they are similar. Reading parts of Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Harnack I kept thinking to myself, “Emerging folks would get a lot out of this stuff!” and for good reason too. At the same time, I think emergent ecclesiology and epistemology is where we truly ’emerge’ from conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism. One could definitely say that our forms are post-modern, in the sense that they take heavy influence from post-modern philosophers and (as of late) theologians. What’s interesting is the emergent use of ancient monastic practices, sort of a liberal protestantism with quasi New-Age-y feel to it.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah the theological similarities are uncanny.

    I’ll be honest that it is not clear to me what emergent epistemology is. I think it is mostly influenced by a strong historicist view, in which all beliefs are understood to be contextualized. Of course there’s a movement away from rationalism, away from the overly cognitive views of religion common in some evangelical circles. I suppose maybe there’s some inclination towards apophaticism and negative theology inspired by Caputo’s Derrida, perhaps?

    I am uncomfortable with some of this buffet-ecclesiology. One can simply look back on the tradition and sample a bit here and a bit there. Then again evangelicals have always been notoriously ahistorical, so I shouldn’t be surprised (not that I’m knocking monasticism completely).

  5. Wes Says:

    I think you nailed it re: emergent epistemology. It is a historical contextual view, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed. In addition, I’ve found that emerging communities exhibit local epistemologies; not only is ‘truth’ historically contextual but also geographical as well. Critics of emergent would say that this leads to an ultra-relativism because the next step is the individual local epistemology (what works for me is truth, what works for you is your truth); however, in local epistemologies, or maybe more accurately a communal epistemology, there is guidance from the Holy Spirit interpreted by a community. So a communal/local epistemology is how I’ve seen it best expressed.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Historicism does not logically lead to relativism (unless you want to use the slippery-slope argument). Do you think emergents affirm doctrinal creeds? I realize they challenge overly-literalistic views of the Bible, but how do they situate themselves via-a-vis the tradition?

  7. A.J. Smith Says:

    I don’t mean to change the topic (I’m not familiar with emergent things at all), but I was a little disappointed with Harnack’s What is Christianity? because it failed to mention any of the three things that I find most interesting about von Harnack’s (other) work.

    (i) Harnack thought the OT should be relegated to the level deuterocanonical works for Christians.
    (ii) Harnack’s work on Marcion (which I imagine is tied to his OT thoughts).
    (iii) Harnack argued that Priscilla was the author of the Book of Hebrews

    Basically, I just found Harnack to be reiterating that Christianity is simple and not doctrinal and appropriated too much of Greek philosophical thought patterns, and was Hellenized. (Jenson, in his ST, deals with this at some length, which we get to read later).

  8. Wes Says:

    Jeremy- To clarify, I understand that historicism does not lead to relativism, I was pointing out the slippery-slope argument often used by emergent critiques (as you pointed out). Regarding the creeds, I think many emerging folk would affirm some form of creed; however, what the point of emerging is to not be bound by any creed. Instead emerging hopes to foster an open-sourced collaborative style theology (I believe there was a wiki for just this, not sure if it is still around anymore). As you discovered in Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence (I know you didn’t like it, but hear me out) there are different types of emerging communities/people. Some are more affirming of traditional doctrines but are willing to re-think external practice, etc. Others are less affirming of creeds and want to re-work (whatever that means) the whole picture. At the end of it all, to categorize emergent as creed-affirming or otherwise is a disservice to what emergent is at the core: a group of people willing to push boundaries, wherever they exist.

  9. Jeremy Says:

    AJ I haven’t read any of Harnack’s other works. Care to briefly comment a bit more on (i), (ii), and (iii)?

    Yeah it wasn’t especially interesting. What I find interesting, however (and this relates to the emergent thing), is that you hear the same arguments uttered by so many today as if it were a new idea.

    Wes, I thought that was what you were saying regarding historicism. .

    I asked that question because Brandon and I were talking about this over Christmas. We agreed that something like the Trinity is simply not on the table. I’m sorry if people don’t like it, but it is what it is. I think your assessment is right, but I do have some reservations. I also appreciate the diversity of the movement. I want to address those departing from the creeds.

    For instance, it’s one thing to push boundaries because you have courage and want to see change, it’s another thing to push boundaries because you never understood what the doctrines meant or how they developed in the first place. Some things really can’t be pushed without leaving the faith. I don’t know how one gets around the Trinity or the divinity of Christ without departing from the faith. I’m not going to go on a heresy witch-hunt, but I think so much of this sense of freedom and free choice is a bit narcissistic. I also suspect that if more of them would study the church fathers and the history of the faith then they might help them make more sense of the tradition.

    If people want to leave Christianity that is fine. I just don’t think they should develop a persecution-complex because they feel oppressed by their orthodox brethren. (I do realize some have been persecuted by evangelicals and this is unfortunate. I just think sometimes, much like evangelicals, emergents have a similar us vs the world mentality (although this is not essential to the emergent movement).

    Instead they might rely on this sort of Harnackian narrative of decline that seems to me to be entirely one-sided and unconvincing.

    For instance, I don’t think McLaren is really questioning the creeds, he’s just trying to articulate a different hermeneutics. I guess Rollins might be pushing the boundaries more, but that’s probably because he’s an atheist, at the end of the day. I don’t want to hear about how he’s trying the muddy the boundaries between theology and atheism through some negative theology. I really don’t think he believes in God. I couldn’t care less. Recently he’s been saying God is the event where love brings man together. I think that’s a lovely idea, but he does believe in a transcendent God.

    I’m not saying this about you, in particular, just some thoughts I have about the whole movement. Like why don’t they just all join mainline denominations, or do they find those denominations too orthodox?

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